ORANGE CITY — A year older and wiser, stronger and quicker, more experienced and battle-tested, University's defense is poised for substantial improvement this fall.

At least that's what head coach Brian Kells believes.

"We definitely expect them to step up and carry their share of the load for this team," Kells said. "They've done a nice job this offseason and so far this fall of being sound tacklers — obviously that was a big problem for us last season — as well as shedding blocks and just being smarter football players."

Still in search of its first playoff appearance since the school opened in 2010 and coming off a 1-9 season, the Titans know they will have to slow down opposing offenses to have any shot.

University, which plays its kickoff classic against Seabreeze Thursday night at nearby Pine Ridge High, allowed 33.6 points per game during the 2018 season. Ending the campaign on a seven-game slide, the Titans surrendered at least six touchdowns on four separate occasions.

Additionally, the team generated just three takeaways (one interception, two fumble recoveries) and 10 sacks.

Kells chalks that up to a combination of inexperience and inadequate technique. Re-watching the film, he said he and his coaching staff set about making shifts in teaching how to tackle.

"If you miss that many tackles, it can't just be the kids. It's got to be the coaches as well," Kells said.

"We used to tag off a lot during team (drills). Now, we're thudding up and fitting up a lot better. It doesn't necessarily mean we're hitting live, but we want to see great technique in everything we're doing."

University returns nine starters on the defensive unit. Free safety Cole Leasure notched a team-high 101 tackles last season, Jack D'Errico recorded 76 stops and Logan Haner produced 16 tackles for loss and 3½ sacks, both best among Titan defenders.

Haner feels the Titans have cleaned up the mental mistakes and are able to diagnose plays quicker.

"A lot of it had to do with reading keys," Haner said. "We can play faster and be more dominant now. We're a year more mature now and closer as a team. We had a bad season, and we don't want that (again)."

The Titans also have a plethora of returning talent on offense, eight starters to be specific. Quarterback Ethan Lasher topped 1,300 passing yards with 12 touchdowns, running backs Kyle Metiam and Jalon Brown combined for just shy of 1,000 yards on the ground and versatile lineman Alex Howard verbally committed to Navy last month.

While goals of reaching the postseason are lofty, especially given the stacked depth of Region 1-8A, the Titans could get a boost by playing their first actual home games this year after their on-campus field's scheduled Sept. 27 opening. They also have a shot at a fast start. None of their first four opponents posted a winning record last year, including crosstown rival Deltona and Winter Springs, which avoided a winless campaign at University's expense.

"They're very important (games). We need them all, and more," outside linebacker Cristian Vinciguerra said. "Hopefully, we can pull it out. We've got to go for it all. We can't back down."

AT A GLANCE

2018 RECORD

1-9

HEAD COACH

Brian Kells, seventh year

DISTRICT

2-8A

MARQUEE MATCHUP

Sept. 27 vs. Flagler Palm Coast. Should all go according to plan, this will be the first varsity football game on University's campus. The Titans have embraced the "road warrior" moniker in years gone by, but Kells said his squad is thrilled to play a pair of district games on their home field for a change.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. QB Ethan Lasher. The senior is one of the area's top passers, completing 50.3% of his attempts last year for 1,361 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

2. RB Kyle Metiam. The Titans' leading rusher averaged 5.9 yards per attempt and rushed for a team-high five touchdowns.

3. RB Jalon Brown. The sophomore could be poised for a breakout campaign. He totaled 522 yards from scrimmage in 2018 and found the end zone twice in last weekend's scrimmage.

2019 SCHEDULE

Aug. 23: at Deltona, 7 p.m.

Aug. 30: at Winter Springs, 7 p.m.

Sept. 6: at Nease, 7 p.m.

Sept. 13: at West Port, 7 p.m.

Sept. 20: BYE

Sept. 27: Flagler Palm Coast, 7 p.m.

Oct. 4: at Lyman, 7 p.m.

Oct. 11: Spruce Creek, 7 p.m.

Oct. 18: at DeLand, 7 p.m.

Oct. 25: at Seminole, 7 p.m.

Nov. 1: at Lake Howell, 7 p.m.